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Cancer scare prompts search to find a bone marrow match

SPRING HILL — The doctor didn't like the look of Maria Morales' blood test results, so he recommended a visit to a specialist.

Morales of Spring Hill had been suffering from crushing headaches and bouts of blurry vision so severe she would pull over when it happened while she was behind the wheel.

The mother of four asked the doctor what might be wrong.

"I don't want to scare you," was his reply, Morales recalled. He gave her an address on State Road 50. When she arrived at the address that day in 2005, she saw the sign in front: cancer institute.

She got scared.

Morales, it turned out, didn't have cancer. But the 61-year-old does have a rare bone marrow disorder called myelofibrosis that could progress to leukemia and leave her vulnerable to serious infections.

"Your first reaction is, am I going to die from this thing?" Morales said last week as she sat at her dining room table.

The answer, she would find out, may be yes. But a bone marrow transplant could be her hope to live for many years to come, and now Morales and her family are on a desperate search to find a suitable donor.

Morales works at a Waste Management office in Tampa. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, the office will host a blood drive that will double as a marrow donor drive.

Technicians from Florida Blood Services swab the inside of a potential donor's cheek to determine a match. All the samples will be added to a donor registry with hopes that one will be suitable for Morales.

It's a quick, painless act that could save a life, Juanita Padilla, Morales' sister, said.

"A lot of people mark on their driver's license that they want to be an organ donor after they pass away," said Padilla, 55, of Spring Hill. "I challenge people to do something while they're alive."

Challenge, however, is the right word to describe the search for a suitable donor for Morales.

A donor must match the proteins in the immune cells of the recipient, and Morales has a very rare protein type, said Dr. Teresa Field, a bone marrow transplant physician at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

"We searched all the (donor) registries," Field said. "We didn't find anyone that was even close."

Myelofibrosis causes scar tissue in the bone marrow that can inhibit the production of white and red blood cells and platelets. A low white cell count could mean an immune system unable to fight even the most basic infection. The condition can also progress to leukemia.

With the transplant, Morales has a 50 to 60 percent chance of a normal life expectancy, Field said. Without it, she said, the prognosis is not so good.

So far, Morales' cell counts have not dropped to critical levels, Field said.

"You try to do the transplant before it hits critical levels," Field said. "She has some time, but you can never predict."

Dozens of Morales family members here and in her native Puerto Rico have been tested, with no luck. "That's me," Morales says, smiling. "I'm one of a kind."

The transplant procedure rarely requires the invasive surgery that scares away potential donors, Field said. Rather, it's like giving plasma: The donor is hooked to machine that separates blood cells that are then injected into the recipient.

For now, Morales is still working 40-hour weeks as a snapshot coordinator at Waste Management, making sure customers are getting the right level of service.

She fights through the fatigue. Some days, she comes home and falls onto her flower-patterned couch, exhausted. Her sense of humor remains intact: A side effect of the condition is an enlarged spleen.

"My abdomen keeps getting bigger, and I don't eat that much," she said, laughing and patting her midsection.

"She's handling it pretty well, considering the circumstances," said Marty Morales, her husband of 41 years.

Morales' supervisor calls her an upbeat, team player who deserves all the help she can get.

"Anytime anyone needs anything personal or work-related, she's stepped right up there for them," said Sabrina Coker, a sales manager for Waste Management, who has known Morales for six years and scheduled the blood and donor drive. "We just want to hope for the best and keep her positive."

One of Morales' sisters in Puerto Rico is trying to organize a donor drive on the island. And there may be similar drives planned for Hernando County.

"If we don't find a match for me, maybe for somebody else," Morales said.

As for the uncertainty surrounding her own chances, she said she feels at peace.

"I'm in the Lord's hands. That's where I have hope."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

IF YOU GO

Seeking a match

The combination blood drive and bone marrow donor drive is slated for 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at Waste Management, 3411 N 40th St., Tampa. For information, call Maria Morales (813) 541-6278.

Potential marrow donors must be ages 18 to 60 and in generally good health. You can also request a free home test kit. Visit beamatch.org or bonemarrow.org to find out more.

Cancer scare prompts search to find a bone marrow match 04/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 9:58pm]
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